Most helpful positive review
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a worthy life more than worthily explored
on 27 May 2012
This is an outstanding biography of a man who, paradoxically, had all sorts of unattractive views and kinds of behaviour but nonetheless, as delineated here, is hugely, fallibly human and sympathetic. The title 'A Writer's Life', is taken from Monica Jones, his close friend/companion/soulmate/lover over many years, and it is a just title - incomparably great as a poet, Larkin also wrote novels (two published, others unpublished or started and never finished), essays, reviews and stories. Indeed, writing was what drove him, along with a great love of jazz, reading and his work as the accomplished Librarian of the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University. What would seem unpalatable about him - for example, his unwillingness - it was really inability - to commit fully in relationships, his selfishness, his dismissive views on many topics - had their root in self-loathing, so that at one and the same time he could lament his many shortcomings, as he saw them, and recognise that he was a 'genius'. In writing this, however, I am aware that I am over-simplifying to the point of distortion ; what the book makes clear is that this was a very complex man, and the depth and sensitivity of Motion's analysis goes a very long way to revealing what made him what he was. In other words, you have to read the book!! It tells a compelling story, but it also is frequently amusing. In his professional life as a librarian and in his personal life as a shy and sometimes remote friend, Larkin could be very funny, and often his turns of phrase, when Motion quotes him, are quirky and entertaining. There is expert analysis of the poetry, a good deal of quotation from poems we are unlikely to come across, an exploration of his unpublished novels (including the two lesbian romances he wrote as a young man), fascinating insights into his complicated relationships with the small group of women who were really important to him for long or short periods of his life - his mother Eva, Ruth Bowman, Monica Jones, Maeve Brennan, Patsy Strang, Judy Egerton. Betty Mackereth - his rise from the obscurity of the small regional library at Wellington near Shrewsbury to the pre-eminence of Hull where, finally, he had a staff of almost 100 (and where, supported by the Vice-Chancellor, he fulfilled an expert and committed role in the design and building of the new University Library) - and a good deal more. As the book ends with his approaching death and then the reality of it and the funeral, it becames very moving ; and by that time he is, of course, pre-eminent among British poets. Characteristically he dreads the offer of Poet Laureate and refuses it when it comes, partly through shyness, partly through the sense that his best years as a poet are over, though not without a feeling of guilt and also of regret that he has 'let Ted Hughes in' ; 'the thought of being the cause of Ted Hughes being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with'. Motion, of course, knew Larkin well and met him often over a long period of time, but he never allows his personal admiration for the man, which in another context he has called 'love', cloud his assessment of the life and work ; this is a 'warts-and-all' portrayal. I don't think Larkin would have wished it any other way ; it is a wonderful book.